Olive Oatman

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Olive Oatman
Olive Oatman1 (cropped).jpg
Olive Oatman c. 1863
Olive Ann Oatman

September 7, 1837
Died (aged 65)
Resting placeWest Hill Cemetery
NationalityUnited States
Other namesOlive Oatman Fairchild
Alma materUniversity of the Pacific
John Brant Fairchild (m. 1865⁠–⁠1903)

Olive Ann Oatman (September 7, 1837—March 21, 1903)[1] was a woman born in Illinois. While traveling from Illinois to California with a company of Mormon Brewsterites, many members of her family were killed in 1851, in present-day Arizona by a Native American tribe. The town of Oatman, Arizona is named after the Oatman family and the massacre which occurred therein. Though she identified her family's attackers as Apache, they were most likely Tolkepayas (Western Yavapai). This small group of Native Americans clubbed Olive's family to death. They captured Olive and her younger sister, Mary Ann, and kept them as slaves for one year. The girls were later traded to the Mohave people.[2][3] Olive spent four years with the Mohave. During her time with the Mohave tribe her sister, Mary Ann, died from starvation. Olive returned to white society five years after the Oatman Massacre, wearing a blue tattoo on her chin as a reminder of her time with the Mohave people.

Following her repatriation into non-Native society, Olive's story began to be retold with dramatic license in the press, as well as in her own memoir and speeches. Novels, plays, movies, and poetry have been inspired by Olive's story, which resonated in the media of the time and long afterward. She had become an oddity in 1860s America, partly owing to the prominent blue tattooing of Oatman's face by the Mohave, making her the first known white woman with Native tattoo on record.[4] Much of what actually occurred during her time with the Native Americans remains unknown.[5]:146-151

Early life[edit]

Born into the family of Royce Oatman and his wife Mary Ann (née Sperry), Olive Oatman was one of seven siblings. She grew up in the Mormon religion.

In 1850, the Oatman family joined a wagon train led by James C. Brewster, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose attacks on, and disagreements with, the church leadership in Salt Lake City, Utah, had caused him to break with the followers of Brigham Young in Utah and lead his followers — Brewsterites — to California, which he claimed was the "intended place of gathering" for the Mormons.[6]

The Brewsterite emigrants, numbering between 85 and 93, departed Independence, Missouri on August 5, 1850. Dissension caused the group to split near Santa Fe in New Mexico Territory with Brewster following the northern route. Royce Oatman and several other families chose the southern route via Socorro and Tucson. Near Socorro, Royce Oatman assumed command of the party. They reached New Mexico Territory early in 1851 only to find the country and climate wholly unsuited to their purpose. The other wagons gradually abandoned the goal of reaching the mouth of the Colorado River.[6]

The party had reached Maricopa Wells, when they were told that not only was the stretch of trail ahead barren and dangerous, but that the Native Americans ahead were very hostile and that they would risk their lives if they proceeded further. The other families resolved to stay. The Oatman family, eventually traveling alone, was nearly annihilated in what became known as the "Oatman Massacre" on the banks of the Gila River about 80–90 miles (130–140 km) east of Yuma, in what is now Arizona.[7]

Oatman massacre[edit]

The Oatman Family Massacre site.

Royce and Mary Ann Oatman had seven children. Mary Ann was also pregnant with their eighth child during their journey from Illinois to the Gila River. The Oatman children ranged in age from 17-years-old to 1-year-old, with Lucy Oatman being the oldest. On the Oatmans' fourth day out from Maricopa Wells, they were approached by a group of Native Americans who were asking for tobacco and food. Due to the lack of supplies, Royce Oatman was hesitant to share too much with the small party of Yavapais. They became irate at his stinginess. During the encounter, the Yavapais attacked the Oatman family. The Yavapais clubbed the family to death. All were killed except for three of the children: Lorenzo, age 15 (who was left for dead), Olive, age 14, and Mary Ann, age 7, who were taken to be slaves for the Yavapais.[8]

After the attack, Lorenzo awoke to find his parents and siblings dead, but he saw no sign of little Mary Ann and Olive. Lorenzo attempted the hazardous trek to find help. He eventually reached a settlement, where his wounds were treated. Lorenzo rejoined the emigrant train, and three days later returned to the bodies of his slain family. "We buried the bodies of father, mother and babe in one common grave."[9] The men had no way of digging proper graves in the volcanic rocky soil, so they gathered the bodies together and formed a cairn over them. It has been said the remains were reburied several times and finally moved to the river for re-interment by early Arizona colonizer Charles Poston.[10] Lorenzo Oatman became determined to never give up the search for his only surviving siblings.

Abduction and captivity[edit]

The Oatman Family grave.
Olive (left) and Mary Oatman, Captivity of the Oatman Girls, 1857

After the attack, the Native Americans took some of the Oatman family's belongings, along with Olive and Mary Ann. Although Olive Oatman later identified her captors as Tonto Apaches,[11][12] they were probably Tolkepayas (Western Yavapais)[13]:85 living in a village eight miles (13 km) southwest of Aguila, Arizona, in the Harquahala Mountains. After arriving at the village, the girls were initially treated in a way that appeared threatening, and Oatman later said she thought they would be killed. However, the girls were used as slaves to forage for food, to lug water and firewood, and for other menial tasks; they were frequently beaten.

During the girls' stay with the Yavapais, another group of Native Americans came to trade with the tribe. This group was made up of Mohave Native Americans. The daughter of the Mohave Chief Espaniole saw the girls and their poor treatment during a trading expedition. She tried to make a trade for the girls. The Yavapais refused, but the chief's daughter, Topeka, was persistent and returned once more offering a trade for the girls. Eventually the Yavapais gave in and traded the girls for two horses, some vegetables, blankets, and beads. After being taken into Mohave custody, the girls walked for days to a Mohave village along the Colorado River (in the center of what today is Needles, California). They were immediately taken in by the family of a tribal leader (kohot) whose non-Mohave name was Espianole. The Mohave tribe was more prosperous than the group that had held the girls captive, and both Espaniole's wife, Aespaneo, and daughter, Topeka, took an interest in the Oatman girls' welfare. Oatman expressed her deep affection for these two women numerous times over the years after her captivity.[13]:93

Aespaneo arranged for the Oatman girls to be given plots of land to farm. Whether the Oatman girls were truly adopted into that family and the Mohave people is unknown. Mohave tribesman, Llewelyn Barrackman, said in an interview that Olive was most likely fully adopted into the tribe because she was given a Mohave nickname, something only presented to those who have fully assimilated into the tribe. Olive would later claim that she and Mary Ann were captives of the Mohave and that she feared to leave, but this statement could be colored by the racial prejudice of Reverend Royal B. Stratton, who sponsored Olive's captivity narrative that was published shortly after her return to White society. She did not attempt to contact a large group of whites that visited the Mohaves during her period with them,[13]:102 and years later she went to meet with a Mohave leader, Irataba, in New York City and spoke with him of old times.[13]:176-177 Claiming the Mohave forced Olive to stay makes her story contradictory. Anthropologist, A. L. Kroeber, states in his article about the Oatman captivity that, "The Mohaves always told her she could go to the white settlements when she pleased but they dared not go with her, fearing they might be punished for having kept a white woman so long among them, nor did they dare to let it be known that she was among them" [14].

Another instance which contradicts the claim that Olive and Mary Ann were forced into captivity by the Mohave is that both girls were tattooed on their chins and arms[15][16][17] in keeping with the tribal custom for those who were tribal members. Oatman later claimed (in Stratton's book and in her lectures) that she was tattooed to mark her as a slave of the Mohaves, but this is inconsistent with the Mohave tradition, in which such marks were given only to their own people to ensure that they would both enter the land of the dead and be recognized as Mohaves by their ancestors.[18]:78 Since the tribe did not care if their slaves could reach the land of the dead, they did not tattoo them. Also, if Olive was forced to be tattooed, she must have complied because the markings on her face are even and not indicative of someone who opposed the procedure.

It has been claimed that there was a drought in the region,[13]:105 wherein the tribe experienced a dire shortage of food supplies, and Olive's sister, Mary Ann, died of starvation about 1855–56 at the age of ten or eleven. Olive herself nearly died during the famine, but the matriarch of the tribe, Aespaneo, saved Olive's life by making a gruel to sustain her.

Oatman later spoke with fondness of the Mohaves, whose treatment of her was superior to the treatment she had received when first captured. She most likely considered herself assimilated.[19] She was given a clan name, Oach, and a nickname, Spantsa, a Mohave word having to do with unquenchable lust or thirst.[18]:73-74[20] She remained with the Mohave, choosing not to reveal herself to white railroad surveyors who spent nearly a week in the Mohave Valley trading and socializing with the tribe in February 1854.[18]:88 Because she did not know that Lorenzo had survived the massacre, she believed she had no immediate family, and the Mohave raised her as their own.


When Oatman was 19 years old, Francisco, a Yuma Indian messenger, arrived at the village with a message from the authorities at Fort Yuma. Rumors suggested that a white girl was living with the Mohaves, and the post commander requested her return (or to know the reason why she did not choose to return). The Mohaves initially sequestered Oatman and resisted the request. At first they denied that Oatman was even white; others over the course of negotiations expressed their affection for Oatman, others their fear of reprisal from whites. Francisco, meanwhile, withdrew to the homes of other nearby Mohaves; shortly thereafter he made a second fervent attempt to persuade the Mohaves to part with Oatman. Trade items were included this time, including blankets and a white horse, and he passed on threats that the whites would destroy the Mohaves if they did not release Oatman.

After some discussion, in which Oatman was this time included, the Mohaves decided to accept these terms, and she was escorted to Fort Yuma in a 20-day journey. Topeka (the daughter of Espianola/Espanesay and Aespaneo) went on the journey with Oatman. Before entering the fort, Oatman was given Western clothing lent by the wife of an army officer, as she was clad in a traditional Mohave skirt with no covering above her waist. Inside the fort, Oatman was surrounded by cheering people.[5]:111

Oatman's childhood friend Susan Thompson, whom she befriended again at this time, stated many years later that she believed Oatman was "grieving" upon her return because she had been married to a Mohave and given birth to two boys.[21]:152[22]

Oatman herself, however, denied rumors during her lifetime that she either had been married to a Mohave or was ever raped or sexually mistreated by the Yavapai or Mohave. In Stratton's book, she declared that "to the honor of these savages let it be said, they never offered the least unchaste abuse to me". Her nickname, Spantsa, may have meant "rotten womb" and implied that she was sexually active, although historians have argued that the name could have different meanings.[5]:73-74[23]

Within a few days of her arrival at the fort, Oatman discovered her brother Lorenzo was alive and had been looking for her and her sister. Their meeting made headline news across the West.

Later life[edit]

In 1857, a pastor named Royal B. Stratton sought out Olive and Lorenzo Oatman. He co-wrote a book about the Oatman Massacre and the girls' captivity titled Life Among the Indians. It was a best-seller for that era, at 30,000 copies.[25] Royalties from the book paid for Oatman and her brother Lorenzo's college education at the University of the Pacific.[26] Olive and Lorenzo accompanied Stratton across the country on a book tour, promoting the book and lecturing in book circuits.[27] Olive was a curiosity. Her boldly tattooed chin was on display and people came to hear her story and witness the blue tattoo for themselves. She was the first known tattooed American woman as well as one of the first female public speakers. Olive entered the scene as feminism was developing. Though she herself never claimed to be part of the movement, her story entered the American consciousness shortly after the Seneca Falls Convention.

In November 1865, Oatman married cattleman John B. Fairchild.[28] Oatman met Fairchild at a lecture she was giving alongside Stratton in Michigan. Fairchild had lost his brother to an attack by Native Americans during a cattle drive in Arizona in 1854, the time in which Olive was living among the Mohave. Upon meeting Fairchild, the two were engaged and married by 1865. Stratton did not receive an invitation and Olive never reached out to him again. She moved with Fairchild to Sherman, TX, a boom town ripe for a business man like Fairchild to start a new and prosperous life. Though it was rumored that she died in an asylum in New York in 1877, it was Stratton who became institutionalized and died shortly after.

Olive became Sherman's "Veiled Lady",[29] and took it upon herself to become involved in charity work. She was particularly interested in helping a local orphanage. She and John Fairchild never had children of their own, but they did adopt a little girl and named her Mary Elizabeth, after each of their mothers, and nicknamed her Mamie.

Grave Marker at West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas

Death and legacy[edit]

Her brother Lorenzo died on October 8, 1901.[30] She outlived him by less than 2 years.

Olive Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack on March 20, 1903, at the age of 65.[31] She is buried at the West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas.[32] The town of Oatman, Arizona, named for Olive Oatman, was once a bustling mining and gambling town which turned into a ghost town. It was part of the Oatman Gold District.[33] Today, the town is a popular tourist stop.[34]

The historic town of Olive City, Arizona, near today's town of Ehrenberg, was a steamboat stop on the Colorado River during the gold rush days and which was named in her honor. Other Oatman namesakes in Arizona are Oatman Mountain[35] and Oatman Flat. Oatman Flat Station was a stage stop for the Butterfield Overland Mail from 1858 to 1861.

In popular culture[edit]

The character of Eva Oakes, portrayed by Robin McLeavy in the AMC television series Hell on Wheels, is very loosely based on Olive Oatman. Outside of being captured by a group of Indians, bearing the distinctive blue chin tattoo, and having been raised Mormon, there are very few similarities between the character of Eva and the actual life of Olive Oatman.[36]

Novelist Elmore Leonard based a short story, "The Tonto Woman", on a white captive woman who was tattooed in the manner of Oatman.[37]:203

In an episode of the series The Ghost Inside My Child: The Wild West and Tribal Quest, a southern American Baptist family claims that their daughter Olivia says she is the reincarnation of Olive Oatman.[38]

In 1965, the actress Shary Marshall played Oatman, with Tim McIntire as her brother, Lorenzo, and Ronald W. Reagan as Lieutenant Colonel Burke, in "The Lawless Have Laws" episode of the syndicated western series Death Valley Days, hosted by Reagan near the end of his acting career. In the storyline, Burke leads Lorenzo in a search for his sister, whom he has not seen in five years since an Indian raid on their family.[39][40]:201

Books inspired by Olive Oatman
Date Title Author
1872 Lola Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
1982 "The Tonto Woman" Elmore Leonard
1997 So Wide the Sky Elizabeth Grayson
1998 The Tonto Woman and Other Stories Elmore Leonard
2003 Ransom's Mark Wendy Lawton
2009 The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman Margot Mifflin


  1. ^ MCLEROY, SHERRIE S. (June 12, 2010). "FAIRCHILD, OLIVE ANN OATMAN". tshaonline.org.
  2. ^ Braatz, Timothy (2003). Surviving Conquest. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 253–4.
  3. ^ McGinty, Brian (October 22, 2014). The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 9780806180243 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Wild, Chris. "The story of the young pioneer girl with the tattooed face". Mashable. Retrieved 2019-11-05.
  5. ^ a b c Mifflin, Margot (2009). The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman.
  6. ^ a b James, Edward T.; James, Janet Wilson; Boyer, Paul S. (1971). Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Harvard University Press. pp. 646–647. ISBN 978-0-674-62734-5.
  7. ^ Rowe, Jeremy (January 2011). Early Maricopa County: 1871–1920. Arcadia Publishing. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-7385-7416-5.
  8. ^ Rowe, Jeremy (January 2011). Early Maricopa County: 1871–1920. Arcadia Publishing. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-7385-7416-5.
  9. ^ The Tucson Citizen, September 26, 1913
  10. ^ Baker (1981). "Mapping the Southwest". The American West. 18: 48–53.
  11. ^ "History of Mojave Indians to 1860". web.archive.org. August 18, 2000.
  12. ^ "Olive Oatman". mojavedesert.net.
  13. ^ a b c d e Brian McGinty. The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. 2004.
  14. ^ Kroeber, A.L. (1962). "Olive Oatman's First Account of Her Captivity Among The Mohave". California Historical Society Quarterly. 41 (4): 309–317. JSTOR 43773362.
  15. ^ https://bodiesontheedge.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/mohavewomantattoos.jpg
  16. ^ Mohave. Woman with chin tattoos, ca. 1900.
  17. ^ Tribal Tattooing in California and the American Southwest by Lars Krutak
  18. ^ a b c Mifflin, Margot (2009). The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman.
  19. ^ Blattman, Elissa (2013), The Abduction of Olive Oatman, National Women's History Museum
  20. ^ "The Blue Tattoo | The Mohave Indians | Olive Oatman". www.ralphmag.org.
  21. ^ Brian McGinty. The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. 2004.
  22. ^ Richard H. Dillon. Tragedy at Oatman Flat: Massacre, Captivity, Mystery. American West 18, no. 2 (1981), pages 46-59
  23. ^ Lawrence, Deborah; Lawrence, Jon (13 September 2012). Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres. University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 27–28. ISBN 978-0-8061-8434-0.
  24. ^ Tintype portraits of Olive Oatman and Lorenzo D. Oatman held in the collection of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University
  25. ^ Stratton, Royal B. (1857). Life among the Indians: Captivity of the Oatman girls. San Francisco: Whitton, Towne & Co.'s Excelsior Steam Power Presses. Retrieved August 6, 2019.
  26. ^ "Calisphere: Olive Oatman, ca. 1860". Calisphere.
  27. ^ "Fairchild, Olive Ann Oatman". Texas State Historical Association. 2010-06-12. Retrieved August 10, 2012.
  28. ^ Story of Olive Ann Oatman is told - Herald Democrat
  29. ^ Vaughan, R.C. (January 11, 2009). "Veiled Lady Causes Stir on Sherman Streets". Sherman Democrat.
  30. ^ "Lorenzo Oatman." Geni. Updated 17 August 2015. URL: https://www.geni.com/people/Lorenzo-Oatman/6000000014417694485.
  31. ^ Mae, Poppy (7 December 2017). "Olive Oatman & the Mohave Tribe". Medium.com. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  32. ^ Ashby, Linda (2011). Sherman. Arcadia Publishing. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-7385-7983-2.
  33. ^ https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/b743
  34. ^ Varney, Philip (1994). Arizona Ghost Towns and Mining Camps. Arizona Department of Transportation, State of Arizona. p. 1905. ISBN 978-0-916179-44-1.
  35. ^ https://www.summitpost.org/oatman-mountain/770204
  36. ^ Hsieh, Veronica (November 2011). "Hell on Wheels Handbook – Olive Oatman, a Historical Counterpart to Eva". AMC Network Entertainment LLC. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  37. ^ Mifflin, Margot (2009). The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman.
  38. ^ "The Wild West and Tribal Quest". The Ghost Inside My Child. Season 1. Episode 3. 30 August 2014. Lifetime.
  39. ^ "The Lawless Have Laws on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved August 27, 2015.
  40. ^ Mifflin, Margot (2009). The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman.

Further reading[edit]

  • Leo Banks, Stalwart Women: Frontier Stories of Indomitable Spirit (ISBN 0-916179-77-X)
  • Brian McGinty, The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival (ISBN 0-8061-3667-7)
  • Margot Mifflin, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman (ISBN 978-0-8032-1148-3)
  • True West magazine, March issue 2018, details the route to and the location of "the first camp of captivity"

External links[edit]